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Flatiron: Flavor and flair combine in miraculous chemistry

by Robbie Swinnerton

Whenever an exciting new restaurant is launched in Tokyo, usually it’s all over the foodie magazines within days. Not so with Flatiron. Though it’s been up and running since September, it’s been flying well under the radar.

That is nothing to do with its location: The outer fringe of Roppongi is hardly obscure. Nor is it down to its diminutive size: After all, Tokyo specializes in boutique one-chef counter restaurants that seat 10 people maximum. But it has everything to do with the fact that Flatiron is inside and operated by the Tokyo American Club.

Time to clear up three common misapprehensions about TAC. First, it’s not only for Americans: In fact the majority of members are Japanese. Second, it’s not a moldering holdover from the Cold War era: Since the TAC was rebuilt (it reopened in 2010), the facilities and architecture are as sleek and modern as any high-end hotel.

Third and most important, TAC offers serious cutting-edge dining, and you don’t need to be a member to eat there. Decanter, its main restaurant, serves some of the best steak in town, with a wine cellar to match.

And now there is Flatiron. If you’re into assigning genres, then call it a high-tech teppanyaki grill — albeit one that’s been sprinkled with a liberal dose of magic dust. Dining there takes you to an entirely different, parallel universe from the standard teppan fare popularized by the likes of Benihana.

There are two separate grills, each seating a maximum of five people, each with its own chef, but both serving the same fixed tasting-menu dinner. And it doesn’t take very long to realize you’re taking off into experimental, modernist territory.

The term “molecular cuisine” has been bastardized to near meaninglessness, especially since the demise of the pioneering El Bulli restaurant on Spain’s Catalan coast. Nonetheless, that is the inevitable frame of reference for what Flatiron is doing.

The grills themselves are standard issue, apart from the video screens mounted behind them. But things soon get interesting — in fact, from the moment you are served your welcome cocktail. Or, rather, your welcome chemistry experiment: You mix the components of your drinks out of test tubes.

Over the next two hours, the show — for Flatiron is just as much about the spectacle as the dinner — leads you through 11 courses, most prepared in front of your eyes, and some requiring your active participation.

The sheer variety of flavors and preparations is remarkable. There are powders and gels, mousses, membranes, tubes, syringes and sous-vide vacuum packs. As you’d expect, smoke chambers, blocks of ice and clouds of liquid nitrogen also feature prominently. But that does not obscure the quality of the ingredients or the fact that there is some serious old-fashioned cooking going on as well.

As with any conjuring show, it would be unfair to give away too many of the secrets. But here are a few of the highlights from the current menu.

Early on in the proceedings, a dish entitled Three Frozen Peppers. Three spoons appear, each holding a small, lightly frozen ball of pureed sweet pepper — each ball a different color, and with toppings of caviar, pistachio and basil respectively. With each, you take a spoonful of powdered olive oil. They combine in your mouth to evoke a perfectly dressed Mediterranean vegetable appetizer.

Or the bowl of creamy burrata cheese, imported fresh from southern Italy, seasoned (as it should be) with black pepper and a few drops of fragrant olive oil. So far, so straightforward — until you try the flatbreads served with them, which are cooked fresh on the grill in front of you, on a layer of glass as fine as food wrap.

Another memorable dish is Crab and 1,000 Flavors: a mound of delectable Hokkaido snow-crab meat, encased in slices of avocado and delicate cubes of cucumber, with a totally clear tomato-water dressing.

Some of the names of the dishes are as whimsical as the preparations. Not so with Breakfast in America: Even at 9 p.m., bacon and hotcakes make perfect sense, albeit presented here with foie gras and a lovely blackberry jam.

Between that point and the tantalizing dessert come two seafood dishes, then chicken and finally a small teppan-grilled steak that involves a syringe of sauce — a course entitled Playing Doctors.

Besides the video screen, you also get a running commentary from master of ceremonies Sam Nakamura. By the end of your two hours your mind will be as boggled as your eyes and palate. It’s quite a performance.

Flatiron has two sittings each evening, for parties of up to five people. Because of the sheer number of courses, it makes sense to order one of the excellent flights of wines by the glass. But if you do want to choose a couple of bottles to share over the course of the meal, Decanter has a stupendous cellar to explore.

With new dishes brought in each month — and a special Christmas menu for the holiday season — Flatiron is definitely putting the fun into fine dining.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.